Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mobility Shifts

I had to miss far too much of the Mobility Shifts conference (yes, I know, it had a fancier title). organized last week at the New School by my colleague Trebor Scholz.  But I did see John Willinsky's talk on open access,  and workshop, Cecilia Rubino's wonderful play (featuring my former student Brian Lewis), the panel on the scribal; and the digital featuring Michael Pettinger, Dan Visel, and Elaine Savory, Henry Jenkins and Liz Losh's dialogue on participatory culture, and some of the Policy Day sessions featuring Obama administration officials including Asst. Sec'y Eduardo Ochoa (I was most impressed both by the innovativeness of their policies and the intelligence of the personnel enacting them). It was a very inspiring conference and I was particularly pleased by the sense that the liberating expansiveness of digital possibility is being manifested in a very specific socio-economic world still dominated by neoliberalism.

Willinsky's point was that people have been afraid of open access because of proprietary reasons and fears about devaluing information by making it too available. Ingeniously, Willinsky turned to John Locke and utilized Locke’s theory that the only way value is added to property is through the owner improving it (a backbone assumption of the US Homestead laws in the nineteenth century, I might add). As intellectual capital, argued Willinsky, is gained by disseminating work—not by letting it, as it were, remain in the bank and collect interest—so it goes ot waste unless it is communicated. Open access allows academics to maximize the value of their work; it really is a form of capital investment. As much exposure can be gained by publishing one's articles on a free e-journal maintained by a university liberty as a journal behind a pay wall such as those maintained by Taylor and Francis, Reed Elsevier, and so on….

I asked Willinsky, this may be all very well and good, but what about tenure and promotion? Recent cases at various universities with which I am familiar have shown that administrations still tend to value very traditional channels—a book from Oxford, a book from Cambridge-and as exciting and genuinely efficient in information distribution as free library e-journals might be, one can’t see them counting for tenure as much as an article in (in my field) PMLA or ELH. Willinsky's answer centered around increasing awareness and reminding the administrations that they also are stakeholders in any gain to be made from an o-en-information discursive realm, but certain troglodytic administrations may, I am afraid remain unconvinced.

Jenkins and Losh were both great, discussing how 'participatory culture' (a term made famous by Jenkins) could manifest itself in public schools and highly institutionalized universities. Although Jenkins was billed as the advocate of popular culture, Losh of critical theory, there was not much daylight between them; they both gave a realistic sense of pervasive possibility in familiarizing teachers and students with new learning structures. Streamlined textual poaching, perhaps? My own colleagues, Pettinger and Savory, were both outstanding, both commenting on moments of transition between writing technologies, with orality not far from the background: Franciscus Junius’s seventeenth-century editing of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript into a printed book  and Kamau Brathwaite’s shift from composing his experimental Caribbean epics with a typewriter to a computer, which led Brathwaite to develop his ‘video’ style’. Visel talked of computer pioneer Ted Nelson, to a degree like Brathwaite a cranky visionary who has tread an eve more solitary path as he grows older.

The policymakers on Saturday were, again, all outstanding, and made one feel the Obama administration’s achievements were not being trumpeted. (As did the scandalously low attendance, although partially explained by concurrent sessions). Richard Culotta of the Senate Suzanne Hall of the Sate Department and Hal Plotkin of the Department of Education (who was very funny) all illustrated, in concrete, non-euphoric ways, how digital communication is enhancing opportunities and possibilities, both here and abroad, There was no sense that the internet was a mantra that would solve all our problems, or would be seamlessly tied in with an ever-triumphant neoliberalism: where the discourse went wrong in the 1990s. It was good to see the New School’s own president, David Van Zandt, there exchanging ideas very nimbly with Secretary Ochoa, which augurs well both for the New School’s integration into the wider educational world and for the capacity of the university to maximize its greatest wealth—the intellects associated with it.

This panel also discussed the issue of open badges,” which had come up earlier at the Losh/Jenkins panel. At first, I somewhat misunderstood this term, thinking this meant people who wanted to attend conferences affiliated with specific institutions and could do so without obtaining credentials, much on the order of Willinsky's open access arguments. In fact it meant something different: a program, spearheaded by Mozilla, to credential people, as refereed by a team of volunteer experts, as having put together knowledge in specific areas, thus qualifying them for jobs and promotion and professional advancement without having to pass through the mesh of a specific prestigious or hallowed institution. This is wonderful in its non-hierarchical and democratic aims. It has the potential to empower people worldwide. As with Willinsky and open access, though, I feel open badges may work very well in a truly meritocratic sphere like technology, but in the humanities, where meritocracy and sociocultural capital have always coexisted, challenging the credentialing effect of e g. Ivy League or Oxbridge institutions is a habit that will die hard. I am all for it, but realize that an open badges approach would require a redefinition of the humanities in the direction of total meritocracy, which as of now certainly does not prevail, at least in the US and UK, where the place you go to school still matters. 

I love the Internet, but I am honestly an outsider to discussions of digital culture, and for all that I enjoyed the conference I still felt disconcerted at times by the corporate sponsorship, the insider-y talk of personalities and filiations, and the comparative lack of emphasis (the Savory/Pettinger panel being an exception) on analyzing texts. I am very curious about these things, though, and this will be shown over the next few months as I turn over my CELJ responsibilities to Cheryl Ball of Illinois State, one of the foremost advocates of open access and the Internet in literary studies, and as, at the Seattle MLA, I introduce Kathleen Fitzpatrick of Pomona, the MLA's head of Scholarly Communications, for our CELJ keynote address. Listening to the talks at Mobility Shifts, I see I do a lot of the things in the classroom that people were talking bout, even if I did not know them by their designated terms of art. One issue that I almost brought up before the public policy panel: I worry that a lot of our classroom practices are residual. As I observed in 2009, our online teaching is not always fully online, and certainly our on-site teaching is not; we assign print books to our students, are encouraged to place bookstore orders. Why do we need to? Is not everything either free on the Web or downloadable to an e-reader for less than the cost of the physical book? I am all for preserving the physical book as a communicative mode, but, as I explained to Joseph Owens of Grey Sparrow a few weeks back, I see no need to be wedded to teaching Shakespeare in a cheap Signet edition when one can teach him online. I am not labeling those who continue to use physical books as Luddites, just stating that we need to own these practices, do what we would if the university was starting off from scratch.  What is the point of recent developments both in literary theory and technology—recent meaning say from 1970—if we keep on assigning Signet paperbacks and handing out print syllabi? The slogans and formulations are great; if it is truly worthwhile for the reality to catch up with them, then we should start moving….

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